Thursday, 27 October 2011

Occupy first. Demands later. Agenda now.


I've been following every twist and turn of the Occupy LSX movement on Twitter and in the news since the protesters first marched to Paternoster Square and ended up outside St Paul's nearly two weeks ago. But I hadn't actually been down to the camp until last night. Media coverage skews to make news and since pretty much every major industry that controls or regulates public life - banking, politics, media, policing, law - is consistently shown to be corrupt and self-serving, before I'd even set foot on the camp, my sympathies were with the protesters.

Despite the fact that I haven't pitched a tent at St Paul's I certainly side with those who believe the system as it stands is in need of some serious reform. The single most astonishing thing to me is that people defend, often aggressively, the same system that screws them over. The "yes, we bailed the banks out, but at least people didn't lose their savings, now deal with it" argument twists my brain in knots. The "yes, our politicians are corrupt and the energy companies are trying to fuck us over, but I pay my taxes, so should the protesters" argument baffles even more.

Not that I think everything is peachy with the Occupy LSX camp. Their "occupy first, demands later" position is problematic, if intellectually compelling. If you've been to the camp, seen how the working groups and the general assembly operate, you'll know why there aren't yet any demands. While nearly all the protesters agree that the banking crisis and corporate greed are the touchstones of the occupy movement, each individual has a different spin: it's the environment, stupid; wait, but isn't it also student tuition fees; are we reverse-capitalists or anti-capitalists; who cares, we must save the NHS! Here's the million-dollar question: when your house is burning down, which kid do you save first?

But while the occupiers shouldn't be mocked for taking the time to think about what it is that they actually want to say and how they want to say it, it's depressing that the conversations on Newsnight and Radio 4 have been about whether the protesters actually sleep in their tents at night or whether St Paul's really closed its doors because of health and safety violations, and not about raising the 'margin rate' charged to speculators or calling time on fractional reserve banking. Yes, there are a lot of people throwing about a lot of meaningless Hallmark-card style platitudes about loving thy neighbour and doing what Jesus would do on Twitter. But, if you actually go down to OccupyLSX and listen there are plenty of people discussing complex economic and political issues.

While at times I wanted to smack my forehead in annoyance with the obsession with process, process, process (the lethargy and mediocrity of the general assembly and the smaller working groups did, in truth, remind me rather of the lethargy and mediocrity of government itself), I was struck by the dynamics of a system where everyone gets a say. There are a few stronger personalities evident, which probably helps keep people focused, but I felt a sense of urgency was lacking. The protesters are all incredibly media savvy and aware of what's being said about the movement in the papers to the point that it feels a bit like the day-to-day maintenance is of responding to statements made by the press and others, not themselves setting the agenda for discussion.

If the City really is looking to take out an injunction against the camp, then despite what the occupiers say about being there until Christmas or longer, who knows how long they will actually be able to remain before being booted out by riot police and tear gas. Yet, within the camp there's no consensus on any urgent need to get a message out (though there were a few people trying to kick it up a gear so a statement of intent could be released in time for the G20). If the occupiers felt that the threat of removal by force was imminent, I wonder whether there might be less focus on organising lectures and meditation classes and more time spent on actually getting a strong message across to the people of this country. I don't agree that the most important thing for the movement right now is to be in and controlling public space. Maybe in America where being out en masse out in the open in public space is actually a really big deal in cities where people are never out in public together, but there have been people occupying Parliament Square for years and no one pays any attention to them anymore.

My guess is that there are a lot of people watching in the wings, waiting to see what the Occupy LSX movement does, wanting desperately for the protesters to say something that they can get behind. Because, yes, we all know that the system is screwed and that the bankers got a lucky break and that we shouldn't socialise banks but privatise profit and that Dave "greasy-hands" Hartnett shouldn't be able to sign off sweetheart tax deals and that one too many politicians, journalists and coppers are corrupt, but generic statements don't move the movement forward. Generic statements are elevator music and we're sick of holding the line.

Getting the public on their side is what Occupy LSX really needs. Most people reading this will know that the fear and misinformation propagated via many news outlets divides and that it divides on purpose. We, the 99% (to use a phrase I don't entirely agree with), don't have political power. Our power lies in the fact that there are so damned many of us, we have power in numbers. How to harness this power, I have no idea, but if the Occupy movement in London is going to gather momentum and not deflate, it needs to figure out how to get ordinary, disaffected people on its side, instead of alienating them to the point that they defend those who screw them in the hope that they may someday be those doing the screwing.

So, while not everything I saw at the Occupy LSX camp made me weep with joy, I felt plugged in, excited and hopeful that what they were doing could potentially affect change. I want very much for the protesters to gain ground, but I hope that ground is gained on points more important than whether the infrared technology that spied on their tents was or was not inaccurate. I hope they find a way to get people to pay attention because their broader points about social and economic injustice are a lot more important than what's happening on the X-Factor. There are plenty of bright minds and passionate people working at Occupy London, but it's time to turn that passion into something more. As the protesters have pointed out, no one will be able to appropriate and misconstrue their demands if they haven't made them public; equally no one will join a cause if they don't know what it's trying to achieve.




Images used under Creative Commons License. Credits: Hedonoikos, christopher a tittle, Loz Flowers and Hurwiti.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Artists are a moany bunch of bastards

Glenn Ligon's "controverso-neon" (barf) Warm Broad Glow II
Artists are a moany bunch of bastards.

Let me qualify that.

I don't mean all artists, obviously, but certainly those in the room for the panel discussion on art fairs at Sluice last weekend. To be fair, I'd been taken ill with a nasty flu on Friday evening and was drugged up to high hell, not really in the mood for moaning. What I was in the mood for was an articulate, engaging and inspiring discussion on the forward momentum of a new generation of artists doing things differently from the money-grabbing status-obsessed bastards that came before them. Ostensibly the panel debate was intended to be a discussion about the nature of art fairs. I assumed that because of the emergence of other far more interesting art fairs - Sunday, the sadly now defunct Zoo, and Sluice – Frieze would have lost its cache with the up-and-coming art set, but nope, Frieze still seems to represent the nucleus of the art world’s achievements to many in the room.

I don't want to go blowing my own trumpet, but if there's one thing I believe in, especially as a writer and curator, it’s that supporting one’s peer group is of paramount importance. The people around me, coming up with me (and we’re still working out how we define what “coming up” means), supporting me and vice versa – these are the people whose opinions I care about, not the old cranks exhibiting at Frieze or the entrenched critic writing about Frieze week in the Telegraph. My peers aren’t necessarily interested in the same answers as me but they’re interested in the same questions and these questions are not, "how can I be rich, famous and hanging with the YBAs at the Frieze hyper-exclusive preview breakfast" or "how can I be rich, famous and designing buildings that are exact replicas of my own face". The questions we’re asking are more to do with how can we rewrite the status quo, not try to become part of it.

That's why I was so excited about Sluice Art Fair. In the week when the eyes of the international art world were focused on London, two guys decided to do something a little bit different. They set up their own art fair that wasn’t really an art fair during the self-same week everyone would be in town for the granddaddy of art fairs in order to capitalize on traffic and press coverage (who says you can’t be different and savvy?), but also to comment on the nature of art fairs.*

Some of the art at the Sluice wasn’t to my taste, but I don’t really care about that. From an ideological point of view, Ben and Karl saw something in the art world that they didn’t like and instead of doing what so many artists do and moan about it, they simply started their own art fair. On their terms. Hence, Sluice focused on the galleries - artist-led and not-for-profit – that would never make it (for ideological or financial reasons) into the big art fairs instead of inviting commercial spaces. A success before it even opened, in my book.

Having said that, I appreciate that they organized a panel discussion to situate their own efforts among the broader realm of art fairs more generally. I thought that the panel discussion would be something along the lines of: “Are art fairs essential for today’s practicing artists?” No. “What alternatives are there to the current, though fading thanks to the economy, trend for overblown yet insubstantial art fairs like Frieze etc.?” Plenty, especially the innovative and inspiring alternative models such as Sluice, Deptford X, or unification under the banner of a locale as so many successful Peckham spaces are doing.

And yet, what came out of the discussion panel and comments from the audience was that so many artists who aren’t exhibiting at Frieze or the Venice Biennale – which is the vast majority of practicing artists in this country – don’t wish to challenge and innovate: they simply want to be part of that lofty group of chosen ones making and exhibiting the most embarrassingly ludicrous work the art world has ever seen. They don’t want to define their own measure of success; they’re desperate to be accepted. And that desperation results in petty insecurities that manifest themselves as moaning about what they haven’t got – fame, funding, free flights to every art fair on the planet – instead of getting off their asses and making things happen.

It's depressing how many people in that room appeared more interested in preserving the status quo - in the hope of being part of it - via passive, though pessimistic, acceptance. I can't say that I'm not interested in the "establishment" because it's one barometer against which I occasionally measure my own work (critically analyze), but also because some establishment figures are interesting (e.g. Cy Twombly, muf architects, Dave Hickey, Anthony McCall). My peer group – at least some of them - are demonstrating that it’s possible to make it to the inside, while simultaneously re-defining what being on the inside actually means, so that if (inevitably when) we do become the establishment, I like to think we'll hold on to our inherent optimism and our outsider attitudes when it comes to our work, getting things done and supporting each other, as well as those coming in behind us.

These artists seem so desperate for recognition that many don’t realize that they’re being exploited in order to perpetuate a fundamentally flawed system. I mean when it gets to the stage where some chancer tries to sell a speedboat at Frieze on a two-tier price structure, as art and as a boat, you can tell that conceptual artists can’t see beyond the one-trick pony. But maybe my generation is still in thrall to Warhol. Maybe fame and fortune at any cost is still what a lot of artists truly crave. But for every artist with a speedboat and nothing to say, there are people like Ben and Karl (Cf Holly from Art Licks, Tom Chivers from Penned in the Margins, Victoria Browne from Kaleid Editions, Trenton and Deepa from This is Not a Gateway, Nicola Read from the 815 Agency, Guy and Tom from Son Gallery in Peckham, my own work with SALON (LONDON), the guys over at The Bunhouse, Blanch and Shock, among so many others) who are getting on with the business of making art while asking serious questions about how to remake the art business.

*The opening essay to the Sluice catalogue says that Sluice, “isn’t a critique or a survey, but a modest proposal”. A modest proposal indeed.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, part II

This was the piece I submitted for the Wellcome Trust/Guardian Science Writing Prize. It didn't win, but it did make the shortlist of 15 out of over 800 entries. Not bad for a classicist cum curator...


If you want to experience the power of neuroplastic change, I suggest you develop a porn habit.

Though still a relatively new theory on the neurocience block, neuroplasticity – the notion that our adult brains can be cortically rewired through experience and environment – has been gaining publicity over the last ten years thanks to people like psychiatrist Norman Doidge and neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran.

Perhaps surprisingly, pornography provides a useful demonstration of the principles of neuroplasticity in practice. Pornography appears, at first glance, to be a purely instinctual matter. Not so, suggests Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself, for if the buxom babes and well-endowed studs triggered responses that were supposedly the product of millions of years of evolution, we might assume that pornography would have remained unchanged over the years. As Doidge puts it, “we might expect the same triggers, body parts and proportions that appealed to the first consumers of porn would still excite us today.”

Anyone with an internet connection can see that this simply isn’t true. Pornography is a dynamic phenomenon that perfectly illustrates the progress of acquired tastes. Forty years ago “hardcore” porn typically meant the explicit depiction of sex between two or more partners, while “softcore” porn tended to depict topless or nude women. Now, hardcore has evolved and its subsections have increased tenfold: BDSM, orgies, violence and humiliation, anal sex; you name it, pretty much anything goes. Softcore porn now resembles the hardcore images of from only a few decades ago, and half-naked images of women are unassailably commonplace, bombarding us from every mainstream media outlet.

This wider cultural trend hints at the more particular effects on the brain maps of individual consumers. As with other facets of human sexuality and romance, the key issue is tolerance. On the cultural and individual level we’re like drug addicts who can no longer get high on the images that once turned us on. And, as Marina Robinson observes in “The Great Porn Experiment”, the risk is that this tolerance can and will carry over into relationships leading to potency problems and new, at times unwelcome, tastes.

Pornography is more exciting than satisfying because we have two separate pleasure systems in our brains: one that excites pleasure and one that satisfies pleasure. The exciting system relates to the appetitive pleasure that we get imagining the things we desire - sex or good food - and this chemistry is largely dopamine-related and raises our tension level. The second pleasure system has to do with satisfying the appetitive pleasure - when you actually get the sex or the food. Its neurochemistry is based on the release of endorphins, which relax you and lead to that calming, fulfilling sense of pleasure.

It’s worth mentioning briefly that porn works not because the images excite us and cause us to think about sex, but because the images arouse us and cause our brains to think we’re actually having sex. By offering your brain an endless stream of sexual objects for excitement, porn hyperactivates the appetitive system. Regular viewers develop new brain maps based on the photos they see and the videos they watch. And because we have a “use it or lose it” brain, when we develop a new map area, we long to keep it activated. Just as our muscles become impatient for exercise if we've been sitting all day, so too do our senses hunger to be stimulated.

Activation of these brain reward systems is a normal, healthy component of human behaviour - they direct us toward the things that keep us alive and promote our survival (food and water) or the survival of the species (sex). But as Robinson points out the brains of porn users are “tricked into thinking that the consumption of so much porn is really valuable because it’s causing a mammoth release of exciting neurochemicals.” The brain has been rewired – however temporarily – to neglect formerly potent rewards (delicious food or sex) in favour of something else, in this case, porn.

But here’s the interesting twist. As an addictive substance, porn hijacks our dopamine system and gives us pleasure without our having to work for it. Some might not say that’s such a bad thing. But because porn meets all the conditions for neuroplastic change – repeated use, requires intense concentration and triggers a reward system – regular users build up a tolerance, a tolerance which translates into changes in the brain.

Yet, unbelievably, we take the effects of this repetition for granted. Our activities significantly alter our brains and thus our brains have the ability to significantly alter our actions. We are creatures who absorb the environment around us, who suck up stimuli like Brawny paper towels.

In a society that constantly likes to remind itself of its sexual liberation, where orgasms and masturbation are considered as important to physical health as exercise and eating well, porn is tolerated as an aide-de-amour-propre. The results of the great porn experiment remain to be seen of course, but the shift in acquired sexual tastes at the cultural level, as indicated by porn consumption, is a fascinating indicator of individual plastic change in brains ever on the hunt for a new dopamine hit.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Err, Jeremy Hutchison


This piece was first published in Icon Magazine, October 2011.

Jeremy Hutchison, a recent graduate of the Slade School of Art, has devised Err, a witty exploration of the gulf between the makers of mass-produced and unique objects. Hutchison embarked on the project curious to see what would happen when the concerns of high-status design were brought to bear on objects fabricated by anonymous factory workers: footballs, combs, garden tools, shoes, and so on. Hutchison began by contacting numerous factories around the world with a special order: he wanted only one product, the product must be made with an error, the error must make it impossible to use the product for its originally intended purpose and the factory worker must decide what the error should be. Factory managers sent puzzled replies. Some thought he was joking, others were insulted; they couldn’t understand why anyone would purposefully commission products with errors, or as one factory manager said: “Everyone in the world strives to improve not to create error.”

Yet faulty products soon began to arrive in Hutchison’s London studio, accompanied by stories and photos of the workers who designed and made them. A wooden comb with no teeth made by a factory worker in Kolkata is a surprisingly beautiful object, and a replica Ghost chair is accompanied by a glowing email from the Chinese factory manager explaining the initial puzzlement, then gleeful joy of his worker as he destroyed the chair with a variety of increasingly powerful tools.

Hutchison speaks of the Err project stemming from his desire to interrupt the process of globalisation. “I wanted to make the world reappear again so I removed globalisation’s central shaft – quality control – and stuff began to reappear: human beings, manual processes, customs issues.” Indeed, one of the products – a football ordered in a Pakistani factory that makes 100,000 footballs a month – got the factory in such trouble with Pakistan’s customs office that the factory almost had its operating licence revoked for deliberately manufacturing faulty products. The football was confiscated and destroyed.

Our adulation for the individual designers who produce craft or luxury objects contrasts sharply with our lack of interest in the designers and makers of mass-produced objects. The disconnect is brought into sharp focus, not only by the resulting faulty products, but by the Skype transcripts and emails between Hutchison and the factories. Err reveals that all across the world, the individuals fabricating mass-produced objects strive as hard to make each one virtually indistinguishable from the rest as Maarten Baas strives to make each of his pieces unique. Yet, if Hutchison’s project is anything to go by, this invisible, global workforce possesses just as much creativity, imagination and humour as our international superstar designers; they just aren’t rewarded for expressing it.

All photos credit Jeremy Hutchison.



Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Westfield Stratford City

I haven't been to Westfield, Shepherd's Bush or Stratford. I won't be going either. I have no need to. I grew up on the West Coast of America where high streets never had a chance to fall into decline because they were never built in the first place.

We perfected the shopping mall: you're only getting started. We've got shopping mall theme parks, shopping malls with built-in outdoor stages for hold-music smooth jazz. Shopping malls designed not to look like shopping malls. Shops that aren't in shopping malls are in strip malls. Ask an American what a high street is and they will fix you with an utterly blank stare. It just doesn't exist. Where I grew up, the nearest thing to a high street was Mill Avenue in Tempe. It's a chi-chi but Uni-student friendly shopping and eating street - described by the NY Times as "a bohemian commercial strip" - just around the corner from the state's largest University and is one of the few places in Phoenix, outside of shopping malls, which is even remotely pedestrian friendly.  

Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota

Horton Plaza in San Diego, California

Strip mall in Anywhere, USA

So, it's fascinating to see US brands like Crate and Barrel, a Habitat/John Lewis mash up very popular with US couples for their wedding registry, and Victoria's Secret, a lingerie company, now taking tentative toe dips into the murky waters of the UK, well, London market. They aren't setting up shop on Bond Street, like Abercrombie & Fitch, or Regent Street, like Anthropologie and Banana Republic, but are opening up branches in the safe and comfortable environs of a mega shopping mall. If there was any hesitation at signing up for the first London Westfield experiment, this seems to have dissipated as the brands get stuck in the second time around. 

But clearly the promise of the Olympics and its traffic (some 70 percent of Olympic visitors are expected to pass through Westfield Stratford City, according to some statistics flying off the tongue of everyone remotely involved with the development - where do these figures come from!) has really sweetened the deal for timid retailers, US or otherwise.

For some reason, I've been thinking that the Olympics goes on for months. If feels like it must to justify this level of investment. I just looked it up. The Olympics lasts about three weeks, including the week-long Paralympic Games that take place about one week after the Olympics close. So three weeks of visitors to the mall and then what? Once the Olympics have been and gone, who is going to shop and live in Stratford apart from the people who live there already? A "shopping mall" already exists in Stratford. It's kind of horrible, but it works for the local community (my old flatmates would go crazy in the pound shops getting stuff to make costumes for Hackney Wick house parties...). But more importantly, you could sit in the mall's arcade at night after the shops had shut, waiting for your bus if it was cold. It's not a privately policed, cordoned off area.

I don't know Stratford that well, but just on the other side of Westfield is Hackney Wick where I used to live. The Wick has become a bit gentrified (hello Omega Works) because, if you have a car, it's close to the City, and because loads of artists living in the area have made it a cool, less intimidatingly scary place to live. But there's also another community of people in Hackney Wick who grew up there and who don't make art or live boho lives in the vast industrial buildings. They live in small blocks of flats on the other side of the Wick. Same with a lot of people in Stratford. There's a reason it's cheap to live here: it's far-ish away (despite what Westfield's PRs say about it being just a skip away on the Central line) and amenities aren't great (by which I mean a new middle-class friendly butchers and bookshop haven't just opened on the high street, across the village green and next to the post office).

The thing that makes me angry and frustrated about Westfield and its eastern offshoot is that London needed money to help pay for the Olympics, so it teamed up with a large commercial organisation to parachute in an enormous, anaesthetising shopping centre in the midst of a community who won't be able to afford to shop there and who will gain no social or cultural or education benefit from its presence (let alone the Olympics. I'll reserve judgement regarding the legacy bollocks until I see it). The former has been built in to the narrative of the shopping centre and statistics that contradict the latter are being trotted out by Westfield and Newnham and regurgitated by most journalists. Why has no one said that this was exactly the same story told about Shepherd's Bush and Westfield I? Show me the social and economic benefit that has rained down on local residents.

So. A shopping centre and retail park built to "serve the needs" of a limited number of visitors to the Olympics and then what? Perhaps I'm over-reacting, but I never grew up with the local high street. Even in one of the biggest cities in the US, you can't buy a pint of milk without getting in your car and driving 10 miles to the nearest supermarket. And even the smallest Phoenecian supermarket is as big as a mega ASDA. Food comes from enormous supermarkets; coffee from drive-through Starbucks'; clothes, music, books furniture from mega malls or strip malls. There's no diversity. There aren't any support your local high-street campaigns in the face of a new mega Tesco's because there aren't any high streets.

I'm not suggesting a culture should hold on to outdated, outmoded notions that no longer serve their purpose. And not every high street is useful - greengrocers sometimes have worse produce for higher prices than Tesco's, and going to the butcher and greengrocer and then fishmongers is a hassle if you haven't got an entire day to do your shopping. If the kids need new clothes and there's no money left, a lot of people head to Primark, not to the little boutique on the high street.

In a recent piece in the FT, Director of Westfield II John Burton says that the shopping centre will provide 2,500 jobs for the local area 's "long-term unemployed" in retail, catering, and hospitality when it opens. How can he guarantee these figures? Shops + catering outlets will hire their own staff. Will there be a contractual agreement to only hire local workers. Is that even legal? And if workers for cleaning, catering, etc. - poor pay/hard work - are from the local community, but shoppers are from elsewhere, Westfield Stratford becomes just another site to polarise the haves and the have nots in London.

You might look at Westfield Stratford and see a shiny, new all-in-one Saturday shop fest, but I look at Westfield Stratford and see a culture that's losing its identity, a greed-driven, capitalist spaceship plonked down in an area where it won't do anyone any good.